Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) Review

Killers of the Flower Moon runs nearly 3 1/2 hours long, and this is no doubt a litmus test of one’s bladder for watching it on the big screen. Unless you don’t mind waiting a little longer for the movie to stream on Apple TV+. During an interview with the Hindustan Times, Martin Scorsese recently defended his latest movie’s extended running time, claiming “[people] can sit in front of the TV and watch something for five hours.” Whether he realised it or not, there’s a big difference between watching a movie this long in the cinema and the comfort of your own home. The latter is especially true when his last 3 1/2-hours film, The Irishman on Netflix, allowed viewers to pause and take a short break.

Scorsese’s latest film marks his sixth collaboration — or seven if you count the 2015 short The Audition — with Leonardo DiCaprio, and it was their longest one yet, beating the 3-hour Wolf of Wall Street. Except for the underwhelming Gangs of New York, the last four Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio collaborations resulted in some of their best works ever seen, namely The Aviator and The Departed.

So, over four months after Killers of the Flower Moon first premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival to near-universal acclaim, I finally got to watch the film. And the result, well, isn’t the kind of cinematic masterpiece I thought it would be. For one thing, it feels bloated, particularly in the later parts of the film.

The film, however, does get off to a slow but absorbing start as Scorsese takes his time telling the story from the beginning. A prologue of how the Osage Nation first discovered oil on land in 1894, bringing them immense wealth ever since. By the 1920s, white people dominated the land of Fairfax, Oklahoma, where men took their opportunities to marry into the wealthy Osage families. The wives and some of the Osage Native Americans would end up dead under mysterious circumstances. The local police barely care about investigating the murders other than working on them merely as formalities.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in Apple TV+'s "Killers of the Flower Moon" (2023)

The story focuses mostly on Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), who arrives in town working for his uncle, William ‘King’ Hale (Robert De Niro) as a cab driver. Hale is a local rancher and above all, a powerful businessman and benefactor who’s been a great friend to Osage Native Americans. He respects them and their culture and even speaks their language fluently.

But deep down, he has been plotting an elaborate scheme to have them systematically killed, which in turn, allows him to inherit their fortunes. When he offers his nephew a job, he wants him to get close to Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), who happens to be a member of a rich Osage family. Mollie becomes Ernest’s regular customer as he often drives her around and through Hale’s persuasion, marrying her would benefit Ernest financially by inheriting her fortune.

Based on David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, Scorsese takes a painstaking route detailing from the cultural perspective of the Osage Nation to Hale’s strategy of murdering them one by one. Casting De Niro as Hale is undoubtedly the right choice to play a slithery and scheming manipulator. Personally, he’s the best character in this film and among his finest performances to date in recent years.

The film also benefits from Rodrigo Prieto’s stunning cinematography, successfully capturing the vistas and the overall look of 1920s Oklahoma. Jack Fisk’s period-accurate production design deserves equal mention and so does Jacqueline West’s costume design, as well as the late Robbie Robertson’s immersive string-laden score.

Lily Gladstone, who’s been earning award-worthy praises for his role as Mollie, does deliver an engaging performance as a steadfast, wealthy Osage woman at the beginning of the film. Her subsequent romance with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest is earnestly portrayed and I love the part where they share a quiet moment at the kitchen table while listening to a thunderstorm. It’s just too bad Mollie is largely relegated to a bedridden character later in the film.

Now, for Leonardo DiCaprio, I hate to say this but he’s one of the weakest links of the film. The problem with him playing a gullible character isn’t just interesting to begin with. I find it hard to root for him, even though he does show some genuine affection towards Mollie.

Interestingly, the film was originally geared towards Tom White played by Jesse Plemons as a former Texas Ranger-turned-government agent from the Bureau of Investigation (BOI — before it was known as FBI). This made me wonder if Scorsese sticks to the original plan of focusing the story from Tom White’s perspective, it might be a better result than what we got here (Ernest’s point of view, that is).

Scorsese introduces Plemons’ Tom White later in the film but the involvement of the BOI investigating the Osage murders is strangely hollow. It was as if the film ran out of steam as Eric Roth’s adapted screenplay reared its ugly head with increasingly anticlimactic moments. While the later scenes featured worthwhile celebrity cameos and a uniquely engrossing epilogue, Killers of the Flower Moon remains a flawed but decent piece of work.